Saturday, January 15, 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Last Chance Harvey"



Welcome to "Saturday Night at the Movies," a weekly feature in which I recommend an older title that you can go watch, right this very minute (provided you have Netflix Instant). 

From April 2009: 
Dustin Hoffman is a tremendously likable actor, but he’s seldom played a character as completely sympathetic as Harvey Shine, the hero of Joel Hopkins’ romantic comedy/drama Last Chance Harvey. Indeed, it would take a downright loathsome actor to not make us feel some pangs of sympathy for a man who has been so shut out from his family that he’s informed at his daughter’s rehearsal dinner that she’s decided to have her stepfather walk her down the aisle. That’s gotta smart.


But Hoffman is so sad and low-key, when she told him that, I literally winced. It comes at the end of a dinner that has not gone well, an awkward and difficult social occasion in which he tries his best but simply can’t seem to do or say the right thing. And it follows a particularly terse conversation with his ex-wife; Hoffman and Kathy Baker, in a brief but sharp scene, manage to convey a palpable history and tension mostly in their body language and the tone of their voices.

This opening sequence is fairly lengthy, but it doesn’t drag; we’re meeting these people, and we’re thankful that writer/director Hopkins is showing them to us, rather than telling us about them. While we’re grimacing through Harvey’s maladroit handling of his extended family, Hopkins intercuts poor Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), out on a blind date that is going poorly. The only trouble is, her slightly uncomfortable night out isn’t a successful counterpoint; it just doesn’t compare to the agony of Harvey’s rejection.

In all fairness, Kate admits as much when they stack up their misery the next day. This is when they Meet Cute at an airport bar; Harvey’s bosses back in New York have added insult to injury by informing him, after he misses his flight, that he doesn’t have a job to come back to. So he walks into that bar with nothing to lose, and that freedom informs their first scene, which is quite good, although it ends just as it’s getting going—Hopkins dollies his camera back and fades out their dialogue in favor of Dickon Hinchliffe’s too-precious score, which smothers nearly every scene it drops into.

But Hoffman and Thompson play off each other beautifully; they shared only a brief amount of screen time in Stranger Than Fiction, but their chemistry is believable and they’re well-matched. This is primarily because they’re such exquisite listeners—they’re not just good actors, but good reactors. Hopkins wisely shoots many of their duet scenes in two-shots, so we have the pleasure of watching how they interact, how each one responds to the other, and it’s there on the screen instead of being manufactured in the editing room. The best section of the film is this one, in which Hoffman has time to kill before his next possible flight, and he takes a liking to Thompson, and they just kind of wander around London chatting (it’s kind of like a middle-aged Before Sunrise).

Hopkins doesn’t give us quite enough of this to believe that they make quite the connection that they need to in order for the rest of the second act to play; too much of their getting-to-know you phase is done off-camera or in montages. But what’s there is very, very good. Hoffman has two scenes in which he opens his heart—one quietly to Thompson, one to many more people than that—and they’re both heartbreaking. Hoffman manages to pull them both off without succumbing to obvious manipulation, and when he says, of his daughter, “somewhere along the way, I just lost her,” he does it so simply and directly that you can’t believe he’s conveying such raw and real pain without slathering it in a bunch of melodramatic bullshit.

Unfortunately, those two scenes sandwich the ultimate cinematic crime: a wacky montage of Thompson trying on dresses (don’t ask). And when her big emotional speech comes, it seems slight and weak compared to his. It’s no fault of Thompson’s, who delivers it admirably, and it’s not like she’s talking about anything that’s any less weighty (quite the opposite). The unfortunate fact of the matter is, her character just isn’t as well-written as his, and most of her really great moments are the throwaway bits that are more about the actor than the material (she gets a cell phone call while they’re out and says, “Yes, I’m with a man,” before pointing to Hoffman and mouthing “you”).

The other bad news is that, after this thoroughly charming middle section, the screenplay manufactures an altogether convoluted and groan-inducing third act crisis and clichéd resolution. You almost can’t believe how completely the film falls apart in the last twenty minutes, as you’re sitting there clicking off accurate predictions of which scene will follow which scene will follow which scene, and they even try to throw in that old warhorse of the frantic race to the airport (which doesn’t quite pack the same punch since there’s no flight leaving and therefore no real ticking clock, but I digress). It’s an ill-advised and entirely unsuccessful conclusion, and if it wasn’t imposed by clueless suits and money men, Hopkins should tell people that it was anyway.

Last Chance Harvey boasts some fine performances and some charming byplay, and its inclination to make a grown-up romance about adults is so admirable, you wish the movie trusted itself more. I keep circling back to that comparison to Before Sunrise and its sequel, Before Sunset—movies that, if you recall, had no supporting characters of note and barely any other speaking roles. Watch Last Chance Harvey, and enjoy what it does well. But then imagine these two characters in a movie with that much freedom, and you’ll understand why it comes up short.

"Last Chance Harvey" is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and is streaming on Netflix. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.

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